LAS VEGAS — Dating to the 1940s, the El Cortez may be the most storied downtown casino in Vegas -- if by "storied," you mean old Vegas mob glamour. Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway all at one time owned part of the property. There are photos of those characters around the building, and a few years ago, it seemed as if you could still detect their cigarette and cigar smoke.
Now, the casino has an updated air filtration system, general manager Mike Nolan says, and it is experimenting with pumping scents into the air -- all the better, it seems, to mask any lingering scent of wear and tear that used to define the place. Though some older sections remain, much of the property has been extensively redesigned and redeveloped based on ideas from Strip properties and high-end locals' hangouts like the Red Rock resort; among them, its 300 rooms, a 24-hour coffee shop and a nice public bathroom.
But the most visible change is next door. After spending more than $7 million, the casino barracks has been transformed into a South Beach-style boutique hotel called El Cortez Cabana Suites. The 64-room complex has been redone in modern deco influences and bold colors, with mirrored surfaces and wide windows.
This is probably one of those ideas, like so many of the new resorts seeking financing for completion on the Strip right now, that made a lot of sense when it was planned in 2007 but that seems downright odd in 2009. Who would want a boutique hotel in downtown Vegas?
Still, the El Cortez is making a go of it.
"We thought the South Beach-style boutique look would be terrific," says Nolan.
"Initially, I thought it would appeal to someone in my demographic," adds Alexandra Epstein, the 24-year-old who oversaw the design. "Someone in their mid-20s to 30s; someone who is style-minded; someone who looks to boutique hotels when traveling; and someone who is into the arts, music and entertainment."
But Vegas being Vegas, any nod to a niche look must retain a more broadly populist appeal. "The longer I have been on the project, I see it appeals to everybody," Epstein says. "I think we have done a good job of being inclusive, including our old customers who have been here for decades, while still forging forward."
Indeed, one nod to old Vegas in the lobby is a stylized portrait of the classic El Cortez logo by Vegas artist Jerry Misko.
But overall, it is a chic hotel with easy Internet access and iPod docking stations in every room. There is a concierge who assists guests, offers security and works as the hotel's new-media specialist, keeping the property a constant and responsive presence on social networking sites.
All of this is for a place in a neighborhood that has as many empty storefronts as going concerns. In 2007, there were all kinds of plans for building high-rises, new nightclubs and creating a more youth-centered urban core here. The El Cortez found itself near the epicenter of what the city had hopefully titled "Fremont East" for this section of hipster-focused redevelopment.
To take advantage of this apparently fast-changing demographic, the El Cortez looked to an adjacent property, the Ogden House, at 651 E. Ogden Ave., that was built in the mid-'70s as an overflow property for the casino. The original building cost about $750,000 and had a little more than 100 rooms. Until a couple of years ago, the place was left pretty much alone.
But of course, 2009 has turned out to be nothing like the plan back in 2007. The media have covered how these are tough times for the Strip, but less noticed is that the economy has been brutal for downtown.
The Lady Luck casino seems to have just vanished, after closing years ago for a renovation that never happened. The mostly empty Neonopolis, an expensive redevelopment project meant to attract tourists, recently lost one of its few remaining major tenants, a movie theater. And classic property Binion's is feuding with some landlords for its very survival.
Despite a few bars and businesses opening in Fremont East, downtown is still known as the place to go for old Vegas grit and bargain gambling. Nolan mentions some nearby empty buildings he hopes will be clubs and stores, pending financing. And he points to a blue tarp, placed on the parking lot ground for a VIP event that particular night, as the spot he would like to see a pool built for the Cabana Suites, when the economy bounces back.
But for now, the El Cortez is largely focused on its dedicated and older clientele -- a group perhaps best exemplified by former owner Jackie Gaughan, who at 88 still lives on the original property and can be found playing poker there most days.
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